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2016 May 29 - 06:23 pm

Single Mother Juggles Kids And School, Earns Degree

Flexible Schedules, Student Support Aid Moms In Completing College

MAYS LANDING, N.J. (AP) — When the Showboat Casino Hotel closed in 2014, Tasha Devonish lost her job as front services supervisor. Looking back, she sees it as a blessing in disguise.

The closing gave the single mom — her son, Mikal Williams Jr., is now 3 — a chance to enroll full time at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing.

Devonish, 30, figured she and her son could survive on her severance, savings and unemployment. The Atlantic County Women’s Center offered help with childcare.

What she didn’t count on was how hard it would be to balance being a student and a mother.

“I pulled so many all-nighters,” Devonish said. When she came home from night classes, the first thing she did was spend time with Mikal. “As soon as he went to sleep, I’m up doing papers, doing homework. I can’t count how many times I fell asleep with the laptop on my lap.”

Single mothers who attend college face a tough challenge. While new options such as online courses and satellite campuses offer more flexibility, the challenge of dealing with children, classwork, homework and often a job is still a difficult juggling act. Mothers who have done it say it would be nearly impossible without support from friends, family and public programs— and without giving up a lot of sleep.

Devonish, a 2004 Atlantic City High School graduate, received her associate degree last year from Atlantic Cape. She is continuing her schooling part time, taking courses from Fairleigh Dickinson University at Atlantic Cape.

Like other single moms, she knows the difference a college degree can make.

A 2002 Census Bureau study estimated that in 1999, the average lifetime earnings of someone with a bachelor’s degree was $2.7 million, 75 percent more than what high school graduates could earn.

“Young moms tell me, ‘I don’t want to be a statistic,’” said Autumn R. Green, director of the National Center for Student Parent Programs at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. “Student parents are very motivated by the American Dream.”

For Heidi Shelley, 32, of Mays Landing, that motivation involved her four children.

She was living in Millville in 2009 when, a few months after she began taking courses at Cumberland County College in Vineland, her marriage broke up. But she decided to continue her education.

“Understanding that education is the means to get you out of poverty was a real motivating factor for me,” Shelley said. “I did not want to leave a legacy of impoverished children, especially because I had daughters. I wanted them to see their mother persevere through the educational system and to be able to provide for herself.”

So, Shelley continued taking classes on a part-time basis while also working full time at Cooper Wellness Center in Vineland and raising her children, Malachi, now 15, Emily, 13, Aila, 11, and Savanah, 9.

Arranging for childcare “was not always easy,” Shelley said. “Fortunately, because I was living in poverty at that point, the state helped me with daycare.”

Shelley would come home from work and pick up her children at school. She’d drop them off at daycare and head to college. After class, she’d pick up the kids and bring them home. In the summer, she sent her children to the YMCA.

Even though Shelley was working full-time, she was considered below the poverty level as a single mother with four children. She had a difficult time paying the mortgage. She received food stamps. She and her children were covered by her ex-husband’s health insurance and Medicaid, and the state paid for child care.

“If we didn’t have that, there’s no way I would have been able to go to college,” Shelley said. Just as important, her sister, Sarah Keller, helped with emergency child-care needs during the Cumberland County College years.

In 2012, after earning her associate degree, Shelley moved from Millville to Mays Landing to attend Stockton University as a biochemistry and molecular biology major. At that point, her fiance, Don Cooper, helped take care of her children.

Last May, the hard work paid off. At her graduation at Stockton, Shelley was a commencement speaker.

Shelley is now taking online courses to become a marriage and family counselor through the graduate program at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Like other colleges, Stockton offers many support services to help students earn their degrees and have increased online offerings that give single parents more options, school officials said.

Stockton announced that it would posthumously award a bachelor’s degree to another single-mother student, Nikita Cross, who was shot and killed on April 23 at a birthday party in Burlington County.

Cross, 35, of Galloway Township, was attending Stockton part time while raising her two children. She also worked the midnight shift as a cocktail waitress at Caesars Atlantic City and was a secretary at the Atlantic City Housing Authority.

She was killed two weeks before she would have earned a bachelor of science degree in sociology.

Cross’ brother, Darnell Ganges, said one of their siblings, Sherlesha Coleman, of Galloway Township, shared an apartment with Cross and helped her with child care so she could attend college.

Ganges said Cross, who was buried in her graduation gown, saw college as a way to give herself more options and as a way to strive for greatness.

Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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